Wilkie Collins tries another thriller

Collins Miss Mrs coverThe third in this OWC trilogy of Wilkie Collins novellas is The Guilty River. It first appeared in Bristol publisher JW Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual, 1886, three years before Collins’ death, and subsequently in their ‘Bristol Library’ series.

Arrowsmith’s annual festive volume had become a big success, tapping into the contemporary taste for seasonal sensation-thrillers and ghost stories. They’d enjoyed best-seller status with the first of three such one-volume ‘shilling shockers’ (as they were known when published in book form, cheap ‘railway reading’ to rival the cumbersome and more expensive triple-deckers) by Bristolian Frederick John Fargus, writing as Hugh Conway. His first was in 1883, Called Back. When Fargus died in 1885, Arrowsmith turned to the ageing Collins to replicate his success.

But Collins’ health was failing, opium was taking its toll as well, and he fell behind schedule. He produced his final copy in a rush, working long hours to meet the deadline. This shows in the creakiness of the plot in The Guilty River. He also unashamedly adopts many of the plot features of his predecessor, such as a love-triangle, one of whom is a man with sensory deprivation (blindness), and a complicated, fast-paced plot (once it got going) designed to maximise thrills and horrors.

The Guilty River starts quite strongly, with an interesting account of the 22-year-old protagonist, Gerard Roylake, engaged in hunting moths – a pursuit he prefers to the trivial company of his frivolous, social butterfly (pardon the pun) of a stepmother, who he’s just met for the first time. He catches the insects with a process he calls ‘sugaring the trees’ with ‘a mixture or rum and treacle’. This ‘treacherous mixture’ allured and ‘stupefied’ the creatures.

The wood is dark and dreary – it’s a scene of typical Gothic gloom and death. It becomes weirder when Roylake’s familiar flying ‘enemies’ appear.

As I stretched out my hand to take [the moth], the apparition of a flying shadow passed, swift and noiseless, between me and the tree. In less than an instant the insect was snatched away, when my fingers were within an inch of it. The bat had begun his supper, and the man and the mixture had provided it for him.

This strange and stirring moth-hunting scene foreshadows much of the sporadically thrilling plot that follows – and many of its devices. It involves a love triangle: first, a deranged Deaf Lodger who insists on being called The Cur, because of the misery of his condition as a lonely outsider, cut off from society by his disability. Only a year earlier he’d been a beautiful, loving, good young man. Because of the discovery of dark family secrets on his father’s side, and the fear that he has a ‘family taint’ caused by the African slave blood of his grandmother, exacerbated by his ‘deaf man’s isolation’, his mind has broken.

Insanely infatuated with Cristel, the beautiful daughter of the devious miller, Roylake’s tenant, and obsessively jealous of the young landlord, who also falls for the buxom charms of Cristel, he attempts first to murder his hated rival, then, when that is narrowly thwarted, to abduct the young woman.

There are some interesting plot features like the doppelganger theme: the lodger is seen as a dark counterpart to Roylake – the Mr Hyde to his Jekyll. But modern readers will not find congenial the assumption that character was adversely influenced by the lodger’s being of ‘mixed breed’, or that the criminality of his paternal ancestors’ blood flowed in his veins. The benign influence of his much-loved mother’s genes is weaker than that of these malignant forebears – a dramatic struggle of heredity shared to a less extreme extent by Roylake, whose gentle, loving mother was cruelly treated by his father. His jealousy of his innocent wife’s past also caused him to banish his equally long-suffering son to exile on the continent of Europe when his ‘martyr’ of a mother died.

There’s the usual Gothic-sensational complexity of structure, with multiple secondary narratives. One of these, the lodger’s ‘Memoirs of a Miserable Man’, has two further embedded narratives within it, and there are numerous other letters, reports, etc. to spice up the mix – with limited success. That staple feature of so many Victorian novels (Trollope’s in particular) of class-based objections to socially mismatched love-matches is handled in a cumbersome manner.

As in The Haunted Hotel there are overt comparisons of the events in the narrative with a theatrical melodrama: ‘like a scene in a play, isn’t it?’ says Roylake to Cristel after summarising for her the Cur’s ‘Memoirs’. Not a good play.

It’s not surprising, then, that Collins’ attempt to do a Fargus was a failure. Sales came nowhere near those of ‘Hugh Conway’. After its fairly stirring start the plot falters and loses coherence. The ending is a bit of a mess. Too often the narrative tries too crudely to heighten tension by asking ‘How will it end?’, or speculating on how different choices at key moments might have, surprise surprise, resulted in less torturous outcomes.

So: thanks, Twitter folks, for the recommendation of Collins’ Venice-set novella, but I’m afraid this trilogy as a whole isn’t a great success for me.